The dim performance tumbles at the base of her like fire through fog. She recalls a sweep of red, a hollow clanging bell, a smoky scent, a flick of hot spit or sweat flying out far from a bony, painted boy.
A jostle of people dams every set of double doors, then eases out, ebbs, until Isabel is alone with the ushers in the bright lobby of the theater. Her fists clench and unclench, she takes a settling breath and sails out into the street, the car horns in chorus like industrial wolves.
Vital lights twist on the corner. She flies past them, around to the back of the theater. She sways between two rusting dumpsters, just right of the white metal back door. She waits for the slow regurgitation of actors, crew members, musicians from the peeling exit—a white, graffitied door layered in pointillist dirt. A bleachy breeze disturbs the wind chimes that hang in the window of the laundromat across the street. Its hollow pipes churn between strands of red tassel, their wobbled song seeming to play through this night and into the one before, and the one before, back to that first, perfect performance.
A pair of giggling extras scrape open the theater door. They’re still sweaty, giddy from their russet-skirted rushes across the stage, their studied, silent conversations, mouthed in the upstage crowd while, downstage, the disappointing lead soliloquized. The women fumble for cigarettes, lend shielding hands, and scamper off, still laughing, down the street. Isabel waits a breath, then falls in line behind them.
She tails them down the pavement, swerving between stoned groups and trash piled for pickup, parked bikes and projecting stair rails. The women stamp out their cigarettes and slip through an open door. She follows them inside the dark brick bar. Tile floors reflect the lamps that cluster on the ceiling, low and raw.
The women push their way through rows of flailing arms up to the counter. Isabel recedes, instantly locked in a cage of leather-clad elbows. The occasional drink sloshes up to dampen her dress, drawing the clinging cloth even closer to her skin. Familiar faces make their way into the room: the poet who hung himself from the rafters, swinging so frantically he elicited audience giggles; the bird-faced, blue-eyed police inspector, now brassily belting the refrain from “Eye of the Tiger”; the bony lead—The wrong one. Blank faced. Chubby cheeked and unremarkable.—flanked by a chattering, ruddy suit, maybe the director.
Isabel scans the crowd in vain. She drives her fingers against her forehead, leaving pink spots against the clean white. She feels another icy splash against her chest: “Oh, shit. Sorry.” She looks up to see the shorter of the women she tailed from the theater raise her hand, sticky with tonic, in supplication. It flutters, tipsy.
Isabel seizes the opportunity. “Hey! Hey! Oh my god, it’s so good to see you!” She lunges for a hug, feels the woman tense at impact, then sink into the embrace. The desire behind the lie shivers through Isabel as she pulls away. “What are you doing here?”
“I—I’m in a play.” The actress adapts to the idea that she must know Isabel from somewhere. “Just winding down, celebrating, drinking, drinking, drinking.” She scrunches her nose.
“A play! That’s fantastic! You know,” Isabel measures a reflective pause. “I’m here all the time. Actually, I think one of the bartenders mentioned a play the other night, pointed out the lead—cute kid.”
“Oh, you mean Danny?” the woman gestures to the boy at the bar, still shadowed by the vexed director.
“No,” Isabel studies him, an exaggerated scan from his feet to the tallest stray hair. “No,” she says. “It wasn’t him. He was more . . . had a deep voice, delicate hands.” She bites her tongue, tastes subtle copper.
The woman locks eyes with a friend just entering the bar. “Skinny guy? Caterpillar eyebrows?”
Isabel nods curtly.
“That’s Tom. Understudy. I wouldn’t bother.” She waves to her friend, mouth gaping.
“With any of these guys. Listen, it was really nice to see you again . . . ”
Isabel grabs at her shoulder—“Wait!”
The woman frowns, vacant. “Look, I don’t know him really. That’s his uncle, though, I think,” she points across the room toward a wall-length painting—all splatters and smears. Isabel cranes her head to follow the extended arm, vaguely aware as it falls away and its owner mutters her leave.
“Sir!” She tramps with martial steps to meet the man standing beneath the painting. “You were in the orchestra. I saw you in the pit.” He looks up from under doughy eyelids. “Mmph,” he grunts.
“I went the night your nephew played the lead,” she oozes. Glass shatters at the other end of the bar. Isabel exhales, shakily, damming the truth which threatens to gush up through her throat, over her tongue, out into the room like ripe puss. “I would just love to hear about your music,” she manages, pulling each word out with the same teetering, determined thought: Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom—like a drum. She smiles, plum-lipped.
The man’s suit reeks familiarly of gin, stale cigarettes and rosin. “What are you drinking?” she asks. Signaling to the bartender, she adds, “You know, my father was a musician,” and plies the man with compliments—Do not feel guilty—feigning sycophantic interest in trade gossip, until his tongue is as loose and pliable as his fleshy form.
The bar closes. Isabel invites the man up to her apartment: “Do you think we could keep talking?” A forest of hanging bargain gloves trails over the sidewalk outside. Their flat leather fingers slap the musician as he lurches. “Drinks!” he shouts.
At the top of four flights of splintering stairs, Isabel pulls the cake out of the fridge. The smell of its dyed-green marzipan icing mingles uneasily with the man’s sweet alcohol sweat.
Isabel made the cake this morning, dancing a greedy index finger from the bowl into her mouth. With each completed stir and fold, she thought how, cooled and perfect, this third cake might be eaten. And finally it would be—not quite as she envisioned, but closer.
She cuts a slice with a big, blocky knife and puts it on a gold-rimmed plate.
“No, don’t move!” She sings into the living room. “I’ll come to you.”
The bread-dough man leans forward in the brocade armchair, moves his hands from two gross thighs up to the food.
“So, a pianist?”
“Yes. I am. Pianist.” He answers gruffly, drunkenly flourishing the tiniest fork.
“You know what I would love?” Isabel leans down conspiratorially, slides a pungent glass into the pianist’s hand.
“I would love it if you played something for me.”
“Not a problem,” she reaches her hand beneath the coffee table, pulls out a light electric keyboard and another bottle of gin.
“Ha!” The pianist ruffles.
“It will be fun,” she reassures. And—and,” she holds up a scolding finger, smiles mischievously. “You know what would be even more fun?” She pauses for effect. “Is if your nephew joined us.”
“Why?” The pianist slides cream between his alcohol-numbed lips.
“Oh, because it will be! Do it for a fellow music lover. Just call him. Just tell him—this will be funny, don’t you think?—Tell him it’s an emergency and he needs to come immediately.” She thrusts a phone before the pianist’s blurred eyes, high off of the thought that she has nearly found him—that he will come here, pure, untarnished, the moment preserved because she did not give in to the temptation to scour the Internet for him, to find his name, his address, a picture of him bowing on the stage, a picture of him stepping out from behind the curtain, a picture of him from that night which would corroborate her memory of him and make their distance even more unbearable. She laughs until the pianist joins her with his deep, gruff chuckle.
The doorbell rings an hour later. Isabel skids across the floor to buzz Tom up. She hovers at the door’s gold knob, breathing short, staccato breaths, until she feels the heat of his fist, just about to knock, through the wood. She throws the door ajar. “Oh, hello!” she coos, and immediately chokes, stunned by this knotty sapling boy, framed in the fluorescent hall, exactly as she remembered him from the red-hued stage. His sharp jaw hangs slightly open, as if on the verge of song. Tom peers over Isabel’s shoulder at his uncle in the armchair.
“Hello,” the pianist waves without looking up from his drink.
“Come in, come in.” Isabel snaps to attention, claps both palms beneath her chin and peers, giddy, over this flesh pedestal. “Isn’t this great? I was just telling your uncle—a performance is in order!”
“I–I’m sorry.” The boy blinks at the pianist. “You said this was an emergency?” That voice! “Who is this?” A flake of pale blue lint falls from his sweater as he steps into the apartment.
“Ha!” Isabel squeaks, with a giddy in-place jog. “An emergency performance!” She scurries—floppily—to push a straight-backed, dark wood kitchen chair alongside the pianist’s seat. “Sit!” She commands, and the boy obeys with the confused hesitation of a wood raft in a squall. Isabel trusts her weight to the back of his chair, light-headed.
“Cake?” The pianist proffers a marzipan shell, the sponge and cream and strawberry layers all sucked out.
“What’s going on?” Tom twists, up and under, chasing after a straight shot into his uncle’s eyes. Isabel races to the coffee table to grab the electric keyboard, eight short fingers creeping out around its black edges.
“Play!” she exclaims. She snatches the dainty dessert plate and umpteenth empty tumbler from the pianist’s hands, shoving the keyboard at his balloon chest. He blusters a second before Isabel blunts the edges of her request. “Oh, please! I would love it if you did.” She clasps her hands again to form a dais for her pleading chin, the muscles in her legs clench and unclench in anticipation of Tom’s deep voice, how it will issue across the intimate apartment. That old voice from that tortured boy! A real and suffering and timeless artist!
“Ach!” The pianist acquiesces, and jabs the red power button with a pudgy finger. Tom throws his hands up in exasperation.
“Now, what’s a good song?” Isabel collects herself. “One with words. Something romantic. Something Italian, don’t you think?” Her pianist grunts. She feigns inspiration: “Al Di La!” and runs behind the boy to grab his shoulders. “You, with a voice like Emilio Pericoli!” She breathes theatrically at the molded ceiling, squeezes him with pursed lips. He swats her off. “Good! Play then.” She flops purposefully to face the two at a distance.
The bready fingers anchor on the keyboard, let the first syrupy chord like dark blood. Tom flutters an unruly arm. “Uncle! Hey!”
“Shh,” the pianist snaps. “Music!”
Tom slaps back into his chair, arms crossed. Some bars saunter past. Isabel turns a child’s face at the boy, impotent in his chair. His foot taps spastically—a tweaking, angry metronome.
“Why aren’t you singing?”
Tom continues his resigned study of his uncle.
“Why aren’t you singing?” Isabel repeats. Something is different.
“What?” He turns.
“Why aren’t you singing?”
The pianist chuckles to himself. Isabel glares at him for a moment. A theatrical temperament, she concludes, and in a swinging of arms and head and hips, emits a gurgling laugh. “Oh! Very funny! I see!” She nods to Tom. “What an actor! Okay. Start again. For real now. Very funny.”
Tom squints, chews on his cheek. The pianist runs his fingers over the plastic keys. The honeyed tune swells anew.
“Now there’s a real artist.” A voice echoes vaguely through Isabel, pulls her away from Tom and the pianist. She hears her father say it: “Now there’s a real artist.” He was slumped next to her, head far below the crest of his red velvet seat. “Look at him, listen to him!” he whispered. Isabel’s school uniform swished as she tried to crane around the man in front of her, catching glimpses of the skinny boy on stage. His jaw bone stuck out stark beneath sunken skin. His eyebrows were so thick they cast shadows over his powdered face. Isabel’s father stared intently. A bell rang. The curtain fell. The applause rose. Her father grabbed her hands and clapped them together between his. A moment later, the actor glided out from behind the curtain on stick legs, stepped up to center stage, and erupted, to gasps and murmurs of delight, into schmaltzy Italian strains. Her father lit a cigarette right there in the theater. “I would’ve liked to be so good,” he sighed, and for once the sigh did not end in a long swig of fragrant liquor.
Tom misses his entrance. The pianist plays a wrong note. He punches the keyboard’s off button, one chord—a sullied G—still ringing with static buzz. He raises his dense eyebrows at his nephew. “I– I don’t sing,” a hint of force behind Tom’s voice, even as he stutters. “And I don’t understand what’s going on here. Seriously, Uncle, this isn’t that funny. I was asleep.” Gin mist flavors the air.
In the pause, Isabel’s mind flits to the boy’s knuckles, joints that jump out like memories through neglected flesh. Her dark hair whips stark against her whitening skin. Her fingers scurry from her hands like long bugs from eggs. This isn’t right. Maybe it’s not him. She thinks back on the dim theater, the boxy stage, the red-tinged spotlights, the grand voice, the thin and reeling gestures, her father’s breath, the flick of hot spit or sweat, the swell, and realizes that the math doesn’t add up.
She drops back to find a resting surface for her bulk. “I’m so tired all of a sudden,” she tries. Not the same. Not the one. “I think . . . I’m sorry, but would you both mind leaving?” She heaves her head up in one final scan of Tom’s features.
“You aren’t him?”
“You weren’t—you never sang—do you even speak Italian?”
The pianist grunts, feeds the marzipan green skin into a gaping mouth, brushes himself off. The boy stands up abruptly, cannot even meet her gaze—“Seriously, what the hell.” He ushers his uncle towards the door, patting him on his thick shoulders, soothing, “You have to stop drinking, you have to.”
The door clicks shut. Tom’s deep voice fades down the stairs. Isabel sinks to the floor. She peeks up at the gritty window, watches the early sunlight glitter off the jagged lines of glassy, blank-faced condos that shoot out from squat brick roofs. She hums to calm herself.